Life after ‘McCoco’ for Caty McNally

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CATY McNALLY FALLS to the ground, her palms covering her face as tears pour out of her eyes. Her chest heaves as she gingerly stands back up, and looks at her brother, John, who once was part of a sparse crowd but is now surrounded by cheering fans. He is crying, too.

McNally’s opponent, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, runs over to McNally’s side of the court and hugs her. Still crying, McNally limps her way to her brother, and hugs him tight. The time on the court has finally stopped ticking: The clock reads 3 hours and 6 minutes.

It is the first round of the Western & Southern Open in McNally’s hometown of Cincinnati, and McNally’s hard-fought victory over the No. 36 player in the world earlier this month is the most important win of her season to date.

After signing a few balls, McNally is escorted back to the players’ lounge — a brisk walk to the opposite end of the grounds. She enters through a side door, and it’s like the opening act giving way to the headliner. The front door swings open and out comes Coco Gauff, who is instantly swarmed by fans. Kids as young as 5 years old and fans old enough to be Gauff’s grandparents mumble “Excuse me” to get a better look at the French Open singles and doubles runner-up, the future of tennis.

Gauff signs balls and posters and notebooks, twirling for photos and grinning with delight.

A year ago, magic materialized when McNally and Gauff shared space and time at the US Open as doubles partners. Dubbed “McCoco,” they ventured all the way to the final of the women’s doubles draw before falling to Samantha Stosur and Shuai Zhang.

The young Americans drew the kind of attention to doubles that Serena and Venus once did. They received primetime coverage and played in front of adoring fans on packed courts. Their easy friendship off the court and their complementary games on the court made them a major attraction for fans and an unwelcome sight for opponents.

Their enthusiastic leaping chest bumps became an iconic image of the tournament.

But since last playing with each other in March in Miami, Gauff, 18, and McNally, 20, have gone their separate ways. Like Gauff, McNally never set out to be typecast as a sidekick. She had turned pro in 2019, and it was time to focus on boosting her singles ranking. So she headed to the sport’s outposts to play in lower-level tournaments.

“I don’t see why I can’t be in the Top 10 in the next five years,” McNally tells ESPN in Cincinnati. “I am growing, I am learning a lot about myself and my game, and that’s only going to help me down the road.”

Gauff, of course, has enjoyed a well-documented rapid ascent in singles, and she has continued to star on the biggest stages in tennis. And although they both are playing at the year’s final major — doubles only for McNally — there will be no encore of McCoco at the 2022 US Open.

But is the partnership gone for good? Can McNally develop her game enough to become a standalone star in singles? And if so, will the riveting duo rise again?

THE BALL FLOATS toward McNally, who stands near the net in Arthur Ashe Stadium. She angles the right side of her body away from the net, reaches up and whips her racket above her head. It’s a scintillating backhand overhead that is struck so cleanly and angled so tightly that neither opponent even makes a move for it.

Gauff watches her teammate’s smash from the baseline and punches her fist in the air, screaming with joy. McNally joins her partner and delivers her own emphatic fist pumps. The crowd roars.

Game, second set — Gauff-McNally the chair umpire announces.

It’s the final of the 2021 US Open last September, and the match is tied at one set a piece.

Down 3-5 in the third set, the team of McCoco digs in to prolong the match. But facing a match point, Gauff shanks a return of Stosur’s serve and the ball floats out, and with it the Americans’ hopes for a major title come to an abrupt end. Gauff throws her racket in frustration. McNally taps Gauff’s shoulder and gives her a hug.

The then-teens smile brightly during the ensuing awards ceremony, and they hold the runner-up trophy together. Thirty minutes later, McNally, sporting a tie-dye US Open hat, her signature cross necklace and an army green shirt, walks into a packed news conference alongside Gauff. They retrace their journey from playing junior tennis just three years prior to playing a major final in front of a mostly packed Arthur Ashe crowd.

“We knew this was coming — we knew finals were coming down the road — and I still think we will be back out on that court again with a different result sooner than later,” McNally says.

Gauff smiles and responds, “It’s amazing how far we’ve come and I am glad that we’re able to do this journey together, and there’s no other person or player I’d rather do this with.”

They had indeed come a long way together. In 2018, at the age of 16, McNally won the French Open junior doubles title with Iga Swiatek. She lost in the singles final of the same event to none other than Gauff. Then, a few months later, they teamed up to win the US Open junior doubles title. So, this was a full-circle moment.

There was no reason to believe the duo wouldn’t make another loop or two. On the surface, it looked as though McCoco was just taking off. A quarterfinal run at the 2021 Australian Open, followed by a WTA win at the Emilia-Romagna Open in Italy preceded the duo’s US Open run.

But those who looked closely last year in New York could perhaps predict divergent paths ahead. Gauff had already gained a foothold in the Grand Slam singles draws, making waves with wins over Venus Williams and Naomi Osaka at the 2020 Australian Open and advancing to the second week at both the French Open and Wimbledon in 2021. McNally, meanwhile, had made it to the third round of a major just once, at the 2020 US Open. At last year’s US Open, Gauff’s singles ranking was 23rd, while McNally’s was 130th.

The difference in their rankings meant McNally couldn’t automatically get into the top-tier tournaments. So while Gauff played under the brightest WTA lights at tournaments in Madrid and Rome this spring, McNally competed in ITF events in Prague and La Bisbal d’Empordà. Each picked up a different partner along the way.

“With our different singles schedule, it was just difficult to be able to find time to practice,” Gauff said at the time.

In Paris in May, long before Gauff made her appearances in the championship matches of both the singles and doubles with Jessica Pegula, McNally had lost in the first round of the French Open singles qualifying and the third round of doubles with Shuai Zhang.

So far this year, Gauff has earned $2.4 million in prize money; McNally has won $264,000. Gauff made the online cover stories of Teen Vogue and ESPN, while McNally hit the practice courts. Gauff’s career-high singles ranking is 11th (in July 2022); McNally’s is 105th (in September 2019). In doubles, Gauff reached a career high of No. 1 this summer, while McNally peaked at No. 11 this spring (she is currently ranked No. 22).

But don’t think for a moment that McNally is paralyzed with envy of her former partner’s fortunes. Or that she’s bitter that a career that started with such sweet success has, at least on the surface, hit a snag. If you think that, then you don’t know the “Mc” half of McCoco. She’s not only keeping up her friendship with Gauff, she’s also keeping the faith.

HER RIGHT CALF wrapped in tape and down a second match point against reigning Wimbledon runner-up Ons Jabeur, McNally smacks a serve toward the center service line. A soft return comes McNally’s way, and she whips a forehand deep to Jabeur’s backhand. When McNally sees a defensive slice heading her way, she boldly runs toward the ball and crushes a swinging volley and follows it to the net. Jabeur runs and has a chance at the passing shot, but it lands in the net.

On the next point, McNally goes for a big serve and volley, ending the point with an emphatic smash and a fist pump. Match point, McNally.

With the crowd on its feet, a win over the Wimbledon runner-up is there for McNally to take.

But the fifth-seeded Jabeur is unfazed; she’s been here before. After a service winner and an ace, McNally is down match point again. An unforced error off her backhand wing brings a painful end to her Cincinnati run.

Total points won: 103 Jabeur; 103 McNally.

McNally grabs her gear and runs off the court, tears streaming down her face for the second day in a row.

With a big serve, a formidable forehand, and a rare feel at the net, McNally has the kind of versatile game that, once honed, could elevate her to the top of the game. For now, it’s about figuring out how to fit those puzzle pieces together. While her current world ranking of No. 160 may make it seem like she has a long way to go, the close call with Jabeur — who climbed to a career-high of world No. 2 earlier this year — could be a hint that McNally is closer than the numbers indicate.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to win Grand Slams and be No. 1 in the world,” McNally says in Cincinnati. “It takes one good week for your life to change as we saw with players like Emma Raducanu. So whenever I’m having a tough week, I think to myself, ‘There’s going to be another week, and another chance.'”

The exit from the Cincinnati singles draw came a day after McNally lost in the first round of the doubles event with fellow American Taylor Townsend. They were playing together for the first time, and it took a bit for them to adjust to each other’s rhythms. They were bageled in the first set, but recovered to take the second set, before losing in the match tiebreaker.

In the past six months, McNally’s best singles result: besting world No. 33 Elise Mertens in the first round of the Birmingham Classic. (That’s England, not Alabama.) Her deepest run: Quarterfinals in a WTA 250 tournament in the Netherlands (in a place called ‘s-Hertogenbosch) in June. Nine times in 2022, including last week at the US Open, she’s been eliminated in qualifying.

McNally’s recent results might not show her growth, and it might look like she’s had a rough year, but progress cannot be measured by wins alone, her coaches insist. Her game is complicated, based on finding the right mixture of power and touch, of slices and topspins, of staying back at the baseline and rushing the net.

“She’s had some tough matches and some tough draws, but she’s played some [close matches] and she’s doing things better every day,” her mom and co-coach Lynn says.

Her other coach, Kevin O’Neill, is not worried. He points to another pair of young Americans who came up at the same time when considering the trajectories of McNally and Gauff.

“Andre Agassi shot out on the tour pretty quickly. Pete Sampras didn’t. It took him three or four years longer than Andre. It doesn’t mean Pete wasn’t good,” O’Neill says of the American men who combined to win 22 major singles titles.

It’s only a matter of time before McNally’s game plan is going to pay dividends, both in singles and doubles, O’Neill believes. McNally has big dreams: She aspires to crack the top 10. To win major doubles titles. And some day, a major singles title, too.

“I trust the process,” McNally says.

McNALLY FIDGETS IN her seat and takes a deep breath. Her hair, still wet from a grueling match, is pulled back in a bun. She’s tired and sweaty but she’s still ready to field questions from the group of reporters in front of her.

One reporter asks: Seeing it from afar, what was your reaction to Gauff becoming world No. 1 in doubles?

It was incredible, McNally says. McNally had reached out and congratulated Gauff when she heard the news.

Without being prompted, she elaborates. Yes, she stays in touch with Gauff. Yes, they pay attention to each other’s results. Yes, there’s a chance they’ll reunite somewhere down the road.

She shares with reporters that Gauff texted her before her first-round match against Aliaksandra Sasnovich and then again to congratulate her after the win.

She says she and Gauff are still “best friends” on tour.

The next day, when it’s just the two of us, I ask McNally more questions about the dissolution of McCoco. And, more pointedly, what it’s like to watch her former partner soar into superstardom.

What has it been like watching Gauff’s journey from where you are? She looks confused. How do you mean?

I elaborate, somewhat awkwardly: Your paths have diverged, but you’re still on the tour together and you’re still friends, so from your vantage point… I trail off.

She nods, and politely says that they’re on their own journeys, playing different events and working on their own goals. In the future, when the time is right, she would love to play with her again.

But here at the US Open, McNally is set to begin her doubles journey with Townsend and without Gauff, who is partnering with Pegula.

To be sure, McNally hasn’t forgotten about the words she uttered at last year’s news conference at the Open. Someday she wishes to play with Gauff again. She texted with her recently, telling her she would love to share a court again.

There’s nothing solid for McCoco for the near future, but if it does happen again, you better believe it will be the talk of the tennis world. Again.

For now, McNally is ready to drive home, a 15-minute journey from the stadium, a rare pleasure on tour. She has gotten to have dinner in Cincinnati with her older brother John, who turned pro last year after starring at Ohio State. “I am lucky to have him in my life,” she says. “He knows what it’s like when I’m going through the tough moments as well as the good ones.” She’s been able to hang out with her dogs, Stella and Skye. “They were sitting [by] the window waiting for me after my match. They’re always happy to see you no matter what — win or lose,” she says. And she’s been able to make her own breakfast every morning before matches.

Most important of all, she has gotten to sleep in her own bed. That’s the overriding thought she’s having at this moment: Get a good night’s sleep. She knows, after all, that there’s a long road ahead.

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